Welcome! Please Check Your Identity At The Door
by Lacey Schwartz
I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who was planning on enrolling her daughter in a local Hebrew school, a decision she is now reconsidering. Why? After meeting with the school’s principal and expressing her concerns about the unique challenges of race in this setting, the principal smiled and earnestly told her not to worry, “We have had African-American kids before. We are truly a colorblind school.” A nice gesture, but most thoughtful people know color blindness to be negative – and not just for traffic lights and fashion choices. Though well intentioned, dismissing students’ racial identities does not signify acceptance. Yet, in the world of synagogues and Jewish camps, color blindness is often touted as plus.
I can appreciate the desire for racial neutrality that motivates people who claim not to see race. To them, it speaks to a vision of a world where the color of one’s skin does not matter. But, as a Black Jewish woman in America, I know this to be wishful thinking. Even if I wanted to discard my racial identity, I can’t. Moreover, I don’t want – nor should I have to – leave a part of my identity at the door when I walk into a JCC or synagogue. I want to be fully present. For me, Jewish peoplehood means including race in the conversation, not pretending it doesn’t exist.
Colorblindness stagnates important conversations about race. As proud as I am of the Jewish community’s history of working with the Black community for civil rights, or its vast array of social justice organizations, we need to be wary of ending the conversation there. There is so much more to discuss, and not all of it is as rosy as we might like. The historic commitment of some white Jews in civil rights does not give our community a free pass when it comes to concerns and awareness about race today.
When people choose colorblind frameworks, they fail to see not only a history of bias, but also a history of embracing difference. There is no such thing as racially or ethnically neutral Judaism. Whether we eat rice or not on Passover, the particular style of Torah chanting, the language in which we read the Bible – all are representative of the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity that defines Jewish history. And variations in Jewish identity have not ceased. They continue today, and the growing racial diversity of the American Jewish community plays a big part.
How race is acknowledged, integrated and understood in the Jewish community is very important, especially so for young Jews. We must be cognizant of how colorblindness can achieve the exact opposite of what is intended. By ignoring race, we overlook, for example, the impact of posters in our classrooms that portray only white Jews, unwittingly sending a message about who is Jewish and who is not.
In collaboration with UJA Federation, I work with Jewish leaders in New York who represent communities that are underrepresented in the best-known organizational structures of Jewish life. Their understandings of Judaism and Jewish living often differ from my own and from each other, but they share a commitment to maintaining that which is unique to their community and to our shared tradition. These leaders and these communities have much to share and model for the broader Jewish world. Dismissing these contributions not only does the marginalized communities a disservice, but it fundamentally undermines the Jewish community’s ability to remain relevant in an increasingly interconnected and multi-ethnic world.
In our attempts to be open and inclusive, we cannot afford to be colorblind. Jewish organizations, be they synagogues or summer camps, should not be asking anybody to check any aspect of their identities at the door. Jewish culture is overlaid with and enriched by the multitude of ethnic, national and racial characteristics that individuals Jews bring to the table. My Jewishness, as important as it may be, does not erase everything else about me. My identities are intertwined and inseparable. Despite the good intentions of many Jewish organizations, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between my experience as a Black person in America and a member of the Jewish community. Moreover, doing so misses a great opportunity.
Lacey Schwartz is Be’chol Lashon’s National Outreach / New York Regional Director. She is currently completing “Outside the Box,” a documentary about her mixed-race identity. Visit GlobalJews.org for my information about Be’chol Lashon.